Upton Finds his Groove
Steve Nesius / AP
About a week ago I was trying to trade for B J Upton on my MLBlogs Fantasy team on ESPN’s site. I had a rough feeling from what I had heard and seen lately out of his batting appearances he was about to break out of his hitting funk and take some extreme measures to boost his average over .200 for the season. I am not going to mention my trading partner in this transaction, because after he reads this he might know I would have given up almost anyone on my staff not named Crawford to get Upton.
I have known this guy since he came the first time at 17 in a September call-up for the Rays. He has always been honest and forthright with people and the media, and I respect him for that. So when I saw him right after he finished his BP and he said to another hitter on the team he was “seeing beach balls up there”, I had to do anything to get him on my roster. I might have given up one category for good this season in swapping Angels closer Brian Fuentes for him, but I know I have a chance to lead in all 5 offensive categories with his addition to the roster.
As a matter of fact, since his induction into my roster he has been on a tear at the plate. Upton is currently riding a 8-game hitting streak and is hitting even his fly out for power. Let’s take the first pitch he saw on Tuesday night game when he drilled a ball towards the 370 marker in right-centerfield that was caught by David DeJesus a few feet from the wall. For a short period of time now people have seen that he is more relaxed and controlled at the plate, but when he gets on base, he is getting more attention than even in 2008 for the damage he can do at any moment in the game.
That is one of the reason I was glad that Rays Manager Joe Maddon stuck with Upton as his lead-off guy for so long until his bat woke up and he is now inching upward with his average. He can be a classic lead-off guy, but that also is another hard position to learn because sometimes you have to do what you do not want to do at the plate to promote the team concept. Some times I think this was hard for Upton early on since he did moist of his damage from the second spot in the lineup in 2008.
Ask guys like Derek Jeter or Johnny Damon, or maybe new Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, that spot in the lineup not only get more appearances at the plate throughout the year, but is also within the crosshairs nightly for your performance. It might have taken Upton longer to feel “normal” in that part of the lineup because of the extra responsibilities and extreme confidence it takes to succeed in that pressure cooker spot. But people also forget the guy never got a true Spring Training like the rest of the team as he was rehabbing that shoulder of his this spring.
He did not make the Opening Day roster, instead he was stuck in the Tampa Bay area hitting in the Trop and working on getting himself in great shape to start when the team came off their first road trip of the year. Because of this lack of timing and basic game experience that you get in a new position in the spring, he was behind the Rays bell curve early on. But he did not fret or even sulk, but instead went out there every day and took his hacks until it began to all come together for him. Everyone in the Tampa Bay area seemed to have an opinion on the guy when he was struggling. That is right he was struggling, not slumping.
There is a huge difference in those two words. When you slump, you on-field performance also suffers and you seem to just be behind a few steps in the game at all times. But when you are struggling, like Upton was, you still have the ultimate defensive nature and the rest of your game is intact, it is just one facet of your game that is suffering. Son now that we got that out of the way, why was he suffering. Well, a common occurence in shoulder surgery guys is the struggle to “let go” to swing with everything you got because of fear of scar tissue or even re-injuring yourself right away. But with time the confidence and the sense of your body responding correctly with every swing can make those fears ease with time.
So how did I know that I needed to get Upton on my MLBlogs Fantasy team? Well, I guess it is the sense I got chatting with him about things and that smile, even if the tobacco was in the way gave me a sense of urgency to get him on my squad. I might have given up a good player in Fuentes to get him, but I was willing to part with even Jake Peavy or even Ryan Braun for him. Of course the aspect of him playing for my team did factor highly in the motives, but even if I was a fan of another team, his up-side is amazing when he is clicking on all cylinders.
Any team would want him for his base running abilities and his skill in the outfield, but the power that should emerge in his game soon will be the true prize. People have always projected him as a 30 (Homers)-30 ( steals) guy, and he just might begin to fulfill that projection this season. Since his outburst in the post season in 2008, a huge amount of pressure has been thrust on the guy to be the man for the Rays. Maybe now he is ready to take that title on and with Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford transform the 1-4 hitters of the Rays into the 2009 edition of the Rays infamous “Hit Show.”
Maybe for the first time in Rays franchise history we got the “Hit Show” without the fanfare and the huge salaries. Maybe this group of four hitters can transform the record book for not only the Rays, but the American League in 2009. The Rays have scored a total of 312 runs, but the Yankees are closing in on them fast with 300 runs as of today. But in that time, even if he has struggled, Upton has been involved in a total of scoring 34 runs, which is fourth best on the team right now. Upton, even while struggling has been a force for the Rays.
He has a .219 average right now for the Rays, but considering he has been badgered and beaten down by catcalls and media and fan message boards asking for his removal from the top spot, he has performed to the best of his abilities, and now we will see the fruits of his labors again. But while he as struggled at the plate, his walk totals have been consistent and remain a second advantage of his game.
His 28 walks is second on the team behind Pena’s 41 so far in 2009. He is second on the team , and fourth in the Americ
an League in steals with 17 this season. His ability to read pitchers is getting better, but he is still guilty of the occasional base running gaffe due to the Rays aggressive nature on the base paths.
Upton has been caught stealing three times in 2009 to lead the team again. And for most of 2008, he lead the major leagues in caught stealing for most of the season. It is his aggressive nature that also get the wrath of fans, but if he did not test the boundaries and stress the opponents pitching staffs’ Crawford would not get so many juicy fastballs to hit into the outfield. He is a quiet guy who is among the best at what he does, and really doesn’t get the credit for his success at times. He is only hitting .219 this year, but his Slugging Percentage is .325, which shows he is getting wood on the ball almost a third of the time.
So let’s get to what Upton has done lately to end this blog. In yesterday’s game he hit a 8th inning 2-run blast to secure the win for the Rays. Combined with Weds. nights game, it is the first time in 2009 that he has recorded multiple RBI in consecutive games. That is right, in the Rays first 49 game with Upton, he has not recorded back-to-back multiple RBI games.
During his current 8-game hitting streak he has gone 11 for 28, for a .328 average ans has driven his batting average from .189 to .218 in that span. He also went 9 for 20 for a .450 average on the recent homestand. And to put some bright spots on the upcoming four game stand with the Yankees, Upton has hit 8 homers against the New York boys, the most against any team.
But if you want to still think he is not the answer for the Rays at the top of the order, please bear in mind that Crawford doesn’t want it, and Jason Bartlett is thriving in his current spot in the lineup. It is still his to lose, and based on the current level of hitting, base stealing and consistent walk totals, Upton might just get comfortable in that position finally. You have to think that his batting spree actually started during that dismal Cleveland series on May 15th and 16th when he ended a 28-game, 120 at-bat homer drought to begin the season. Considering the power the fans saw in last season’s playoff run, they expected homers left and right to begin the year.
But Upton is again secure in his “Rays skin”. He is more relaxed and hitting the ball with power again for the Rays. And that is bad news for the rest of the league, because when this kid gets hot, even the water cooler turns to steam. So am I upset I would have given up the farm for Upton? No, but I can tell you that with 4 members of the Rays on my Fantasy roster, the leading run producing team in the major leagues is just getting started. And with Upton at the top of that lineup, the sky is the limit this season.